Following the critical and commercial successes of his previous three films, Federico Fellini found himself in possession of three extremely potent tools: his own ingenuity as a visual storyteller; the setting of a great city just emerging from post-war ruin to forge a modern identity; and the brilliance of his lead actor (and wife), Giulietta Masina. Fellini leveraged each of these elements to spectacular effect in Nights of Cabiria, but it was Masina’s irrepressible personality in the title role that makes the film a timeless masterpiece capable of charming and enthralling audiences as much today as when it came out in 1957.

Channeling Chaplin, Masina embodies a sweet-natured firecracker of a prostitute who works the streets of Rome in the shadow of archeological ruins where she is constantly at the mercy of capricious and sometimes violent men. (In the opening scene, a pimp steals her purse and pushes her into the river where she nearly drowns before being saved by local children, foreshadowing the film’s harrowing ending.) What Masina brings to the role is a plucky spirit and a refusal to view herself as a victim. She shakes off the attack and returns to her modest home–a stone shack in an industrial wasteland in the outskirts of Rome–and goes right on plying her nightly trade at the side of the road where she faces off with a competing prostitute and engages in impromptu dance parties with her fellow streetwalkers and their pimps.

Much of the film strikes a tone of buoyancy that contrasts with what might otherwise seem like bleak settings and degrading situations. As if channeling Cabiria’s zest for life, Nino Rota’s infectious score leavens the story. When Cabiria is picked up by a famous film actor, Alberto Lazzari (Amedeo Nazzari), she naively believes that her fortunes have changed, but when his fiancée (Dorian Gray) crashes the party, Cabiria ends up spending the night in his closet. Again and again, men let her down, and yet it never takes long for her to put a spring back in her step and a smile on her face.

About that smile: Masina finds a seemingly infinite variety of ways to shade a toothless smirk with meaning. She has a rueful smirk, and an ironic one, and yet others for self-deprecation, gloating and contentment. It’s as if she’s keeping the best part of her smile for herself, on the inside, while helpless to let a little of it leak out like fizz from a freshly poured cocktail. Fellini’s camera often regards her in close up, where her expressiveness, like a silent movie star’s, communicates loads of information and feeling.

In full command of his repertoire of cinematic moves, Fellini stages every shot for maximum effect. Many scenes are filmed on location in the industrial outskirts of Rome, including a striking passage (excised from the original cut of the film but included in a 1998 restoration) of a nameless man (Leo Catozzo, the film’s editor) delivering blankets and food to people living in caves in the landscape beyond newly built high-rises. Cabiria, enchanted by the mysterious Samaritan, follows him around, astonished to discover a formerly glamorous acquaintance living in a wretched hole. The pull of redemption is strong for Cabiria, springing from an unarticulated sense of shame at her station in life, and she constantly strives to remake herself to earn respect and salvation. In a felliniesque motif, a procession of religious pilgrims passes her nightly perch, but when she moves to follow them, a truck pulls into the frame and an unseen man offers her a ride. Dutifully, she climbs inside as the procession marches away into darkness. It’s a gorgeous sequence, whipsawing from ecstatic to dejected in a matter of seconds.

Fellini seems to love a show-within-a-show, the idea that a dreamlike spectacle can intrude on–and even supersede–reality. This trope appears in multiple ways, most consequentially when Cabiria visits a raucous vaudeville performance. The only woman in the crowd, she finds herself harangued into participating in a hypnotist’s onstage demonstration. Skeptical of the charade, she nevertheless slips into a trance and delivers a touchingly sincere monologue that reveals the innocence of her romantic longings. Afterwards, when a dashing stranger (François Périer) approaches to tell her how much her story moved him, a more cynical person might be suspicious but Cabiria is smitten. Before long, she’s selling her house, giving away her meager belongings and planning to run off with the man. Attentive viewers recall how this story began, with Cabiria tossed into the river by a thieving pimp. Now, standing at the edge of a cliff overlooking the sea with her dewy-eyed stranger and all her worldly worth wrapped up in a bundle of cash in her bag, Cabiria catches on that her naiveté may have led her back to the same damn place. Smoldering close ups reveal the calculation and regret in his eyes, the fear and resignation in hers.

Thus rounds out Fellini’s celebrated Trilogy of Loneliness, with a production that won the Oscar for best foreign language film and a performance that earned Giulietta Masina the best actress prize at Cannes. Fellini had established himself as not only a singular director, but practically a brand name for international cinema. Italy had only just emerged from the shadow of fascism and war, but Fellini found ways to both honor the tragedy of the past and offer glimpses of hope for the present. In a lovely coda, Cabiria stumbles back to the road. Despite having just lost everything but her life, the promise of redemption arrives with a passing procession of youths jangling guitars and riding lazy circles on bicycles. “We are lost!” a young girl laughs. Cabiria, brought low by her innocence but with a fierce instinct for survival, can’t help but be swept along with the joyous parade. She puts on her bravest smirk while meeting the camera’s eye through a shining film of tears. No matter how much she loses, she will never be less than herself.

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